Blog #127: William Ritchie Sorley and To the Lighthouse

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Find me a name for Cynthia, good Beast, with all speed; and if it could have the same number of syllables, so much the better. I read every birth and death, shop sign, and tombstone, without success.

letter to Vanessa Bell, Monday, August 10th, 1908

I’m still ruminating on Cowper, but, because a Christmas excess of wine and cheese impedes my intellectual digestive system, today’s blog will leave those ruminations alone. Instead I’ll revisit William Ritchie Sorley, a man I’ve previously identified as a candidate for the post of lighthouse keeper in Virginia’s novel.

Sorley has five main qualifications for the post. First and foremost, he was the father of Charles Sorley, the young poet killed in the battle of Loos at the age of 21. After Charles died, William helped edit and publish the volume of poems which Virginia reviewed, and also a charming collection of his son’s letters. Secondly, William Sorley was Scottish born and educated, not a bad qualification if you want an Isle of Skye lighthouse keeper with a plausible Scottish name. Thirdly, as holder of the Knightbridge chair of moral philosophy at Cambridge from 1900 to 1933, and fellow of King’s College, Cambridge from 1901, William Sorley had a lengthy and prestigious connection with Cambridge; again, not a bad qualification for being woven into a novel in which so many other characters—characters such as Cam, William Bankes, Charles Tansley, Paul Rayley and Mr. Ramsay himself—can be traced, no matter how tenuously, to Virginia’s beloved Cambridge.

William Sorley’s fourth and fifth qualifications for the post of lighthouse keeper lie in his career as a moral philosopher. Even if Virginia claimed that she “meant nothing by the lighthouse,” some of the nothing that she meant shines forth as a symbol of culture and of reason. The lighthouse helps to illuminate and to protect tiny islands or moments of civilization, and therefore it is built of philosophy, as well as of labour, art, science, and domesticity. As a philosopher, therefore, Sorley is a worthy lighthouse keeper. For Virginia he would have been all the more worthy because, and here I come to his fifth qualification, in his influential History of Modern Philosophy (1920), he devoted almost a full page to Leslie Stephen. To think of the lighthouse keeper’s name as derived from the surname of William Ritchie Sorley—father of Charles Sorley, Scot, Cambridge luminary, philosopher, fan of Virginia’s father—deepens the subtle complexity of Virginia’s novel. A lighthouse keeper by any other name would not be as apt.

On rereading the above, I wonder if Virginia would have made such ponderous, heavy work of deciding on the Sorley name. Not likely. While she could spend weeks weighing names for a character–in August of 1908 three letter to Vanessa and three to Clive ask for help in finding a new name for Cynthia, the character who eventually became Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out– the Sorley name was readily available to Virginia, and very obviously a good one. No, Virginia would have had no problem coming up with the Sorley name.

Her problem would have been whether or not to use the name. While she wanted to connect her fiction to life, she wanted light, subtle connections. As she said in A Room of One’s Own,

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

To keep from being too obvious, Virginia often erased or altered names. Charles Tansey becomes Charles Tansley, perhaps to eliminate a crude weed flower comparison between him and Lily Briscoe, and the book which Mr Ramsay reads on the way to the lighthouse is no longer a copy of Plato. Very likely, Virginia would have thought long and hard about using the Sorley name. The Sorley name strengthens philosophy, Cambridge, and war strands in To the Lighthouse, yet use of it also risks hardening–and hence, impairing–the openness of her symbolism. Almost certainly, she wanted a name which, on first reading, would not be too suggestive. Even though William Sorley was still alive, she must have counted on most of her readers not pulling the web askew. She must have counted on those readers to be oblivious to the Charles and William Sorley connection on first reading.

Leslie Stephen excerpt from William Ritchie Sorley’s History of Moral Philosophy (1920)

It was natural that men of science with a philosophical turn of mind should be among the first to work out the more general consequences of the theory of evolution. But the wide range which the theory might cover was fairly obvious, and was seen by others who approached philosophy from the point of view of studies other than the natural sciences. Foremost among these was Leslie Stephen, a man of letters keenly interested in the moral sciences. The portion of his writings which bear upon philosophy is small only in relation to his total literary output. His History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876) places the philosophers and moralists in their due position in the whole literary activity of the period, and is penetrating and usually just in its estimate of their work. A further stage of the same history—The English Utilitarians (1900)—was completed towards the end of his life. His own independent contribution is given in The Science of Ethics (1882). After Spencer’s Data, this is the first book which worked out an ethical view determined by the theory of evolution. As such it is significant. The author had sat at the feet of John Stuart Mill; he had eagerly welcomed Darwin as an ally of the empirical and utilitarian creed; but he came to see that more extensive changes were necessary. Spenser’s compromise between hedonism and evolutionism failed to satisfy him, and he found the ethical bearing of evolution better expressed by the conception of social vitality than by that of pleasure. The great merit of the work consists in its presentation of the social content of morality in the individual mind as well as in the community; but it does not sufficiently recognize the distinction between the historical process traced by the evolutionary theory and the ethical validity which evolution is assumed to possess.

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